Commentary - January 2009
Tex Med . 2009;105(1):49-50.
By Stanley J. Zimmerman, MD, FACE, FACP
Abuse of automobile tags for persons with disabilities is a state and national problem.
The state has set up special criteria to guide physicians in issuing these tags. Not infrequently, they are given to a patient, but used by a family member or a friend who has borrowed a disabled person's car or has placed the tag on his or her car and parked in a handicap space. This keeps a truly disabled person who needs to park close to a facility from being able to have a space. You may have observed an individual pull into a handicap parking space, jump out of the vehicle, and run into the facility; he or she is obviously not the individual to whom the handicap tag was issued. This is frequently a younger person who has no apparent disability.
On occasion, an individual who does not have a handicap tag will park in a handicap parking space, which again denies a truly disabled individual from being able to have a parking space. Now, the only authority who can approach an individual parking in a handicap space to question him or her is an official law enforcement officer. Even the so-called "meter maids" who give tickets are not authorized to question an individual regarding a handicap tag. Houston Mayor Bill White's office is working to try to expand the authority here.
In addition, Mayor White has set up a program in which a civilian may take a course that allows him or her to ticket a car without an authorized handicap license plate or tag parked in a handicap space. Those civilian ticket writers are not allowed to confront a driver. The fine for someone parking in a handicap space without a handicap license plate or handicap tag is $205.
A second major problem is the manufacturing of false tags sold to the public. These are occasionally purchased by individuals who have tickets to special events so they can park in handicap spaces. In addition, there have been multiple thefts of legitimate handicap tags, which are then sold.
A third issue is that people with legitimate disabilities and either a handicap license plate or a handicap tag will park in a handicap area, particularly downtown where they work, and consume the space for a full day. These spaces are primarily for handicapped individuals who have business at a particular location and are set up for a limited time. Texas cities have been very generous with these spaces as it does not cost the handicapped individual anything to park in these spaces downtown.
Michelle Colvard, who is Mayor White's assistant in charge of disabilities and who was selected Ms. Wheelchair America 2009, has been extremely active in promoting a variety of benefits for handicapped individuals statewide. She and a group of others have gone to Austin to speak to our legislators about more laws that would increase the fines on nonhandicapped individuals who abuse the handicap tags and license plates.
Finally, the fourth issue, which involves us as physicians, is that we must be very cognizant of the fact that we do not issue an application for a handicap tag to an individual who does not meet the criteria outlined by the state. In my personal practice, and I am sure in your practices, patients will frequently ask for a handicap tag and, as much as we would like to accommodate our patients, we must follow the rules set up by the state to issue such handicap tags and licenses. If we do not follow the law, we are doing a great disservice to our disabled patients. It is our responsibility as physicians to help our patients become more independent despite their disability.
The following is the present criteria used to issue a handicap tag or a handicap license plate. Transportation Code §681.001(2) states:
- Mobility problems that substantially impair the person's ability to ambulate;
- Visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with correcting lenses; or
- Visual acuity of more than 20/200 but with a limited field of vision in which the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle of 20 degrees or less.
Transportation Code §681.001(5) states:
- Cannot walk 200 feet without stopping to rest;
- Cannot walk without the use of or assistance from an assistance device, including a brace, cane, crutch, another person, or a prosthetic device;
- Cannot ambulate without a wheelchair or similar device;
- Is restricted by lung disease to the extent that the person's forced respiratory expiratory volume for one second, measured by spirometry, is less than one liter, or the arterial oxygen tension is less than 60 millimeters of mercury on room air at rest;
- Uses portable oxygen;
- Has a cardiac condition to the extent that the person's functional limitations are classified in severity as Class III or Class IV according to standards set by the American Heart Association;
- Is severely limited in the ability to walk because of an arthritic, neurologic, or orthopedic condition; or
- Has a disorder of the foot that, in the opinion of a person licensed to practice podiatry in this state or in a state adjacent to this state, limits or impairs the person's ability to walk; or
- Has another debilitating condition that, in the opinion of a physician licensed to practice medicine in this state or a state adjacent to this state, or authorized by applicable law to practice medicine in a hospital or other health facility of the Veterans Administration, limits or impairs the person's ability to walk.
We should always inform our patients that when we sign an application for a handicap tag or license plate, it is solely for their use. If someone else is going to drive and the patient is not going to get out of the car to go into a facility, the individual driving the car should park in a regular space, not a handicapped space.
I hope that we as physicians will do our part in protecting our truly disabled patients so that they will be able to participate fully in life's activities.
Dr. Zimmerman is an internal medicine specialist in Houston.
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